Florida, one of the most crucial states in determining the outcome of the Democratic primaries, has hardly changed its game plan for voting today, even as the coronavirus creates major barriers to accessing the polls. Georgia and Louisiana have postponed their upcoming primaries, and social justice groups in Florida have called on Gov. Ron Desantis to make accommodations to ensure all voters will be able to cast ballots. But Desantis has done little more than justify business as usual, going as far as to point out that the state held elections during the Civil War.
The current moment’s crisis illuminates the many widening disparities and broken promises of many of America’s class-centric institutions. In this moment, we’re seeing more and more that the rickety vehicles of economic mobility have completely broken down.
But pockets of popular organizing are flowering amid the chaos. Communities at the margins are arguing for a true democracy—where ordinary people, and not their appointed betters, make decisions for themselves. One way this is taking shape is through people’s assemblies.
Last November, I attended a people’s assembly in a sprawling hotel along a ritzy Palm Beach corridor. Mere miles from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, roughly 200 working-class Floridians from across the state had gathered to “reclaim democracy.”
Organized by the New Florida Majority (New FM), a statewide organization that hopes to “move the Sunshine State onto the path of equity and justice for all people,” the people’s assembly was, on the one hand, a vehicle to endorse a presidential candidate, and on the other, a movement to continue building independent political power that places working-class Black and Brown communities centerstage. Perhaps most importantly, it provided a rare pathway for regular people to actually participate in governing the institutions they’ve helped build.
That pathway is widening, especially across the South, where generations of popular activism have expanded the reach and meaning of democracy. People’s Assemblies are yet another call to push the limits of the possible ever so slightly and imagine a world where people actually control the halls of power.
“After everything that I've been through,” Wanda Gomez, a New FM member of 10 years, said at the opening of the assembly, “entering an organization where your decisions are respected... gave me strength to keep going, to empower, and to be a better person for society and the community.”
People’s assemblies, where masses can gather to debate ideas, weigh priorities, and make important decisions about public aspirations, have a rich and globe-trotting history. Previously, we saw Ancient Athens with its Agora, a seriously limited but still history-altering experiment in popular rule. As writer and filmmaker Astra Taylor outlines in “Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone,” “Athens massive open-air assemblies obliged citizens to ask the great Socratic question ‘How should I live?’ collectively. In these remarkable gatherings, thousands of ordinary people, the demos, were expected to consider what kind of society they wanted to live in and why.”
“We all understand that we cannot let our destiny be put in the hands of anybody else but us.”
In more recent days, a chain of assemblies have posed similar questions challenging what they consider an intolerable status quo, lining the fields of political combat from the Arab Spring to the Occupy camps, over to Senegal’s youth movement, and winding through Puerto Rico’s recent battles for popular democracy. And in the American South, organizations like New FM are also acting, as Taylor calls it, as “midwives,” “to deliver democracy anew.”
“We all understand that we cannot let our destiny be put in the hands of anybody else but us,” Yaquelin Lopez, a New FM member tells me. The assembly is a place where people can “get to know each other and participate actively in the decisions that are made” from electing a president to “shaping the future of our communities.”
The assembly weekend was bursting with popular decision-making. Deliberation was constant. Participants developed regional priorities on everything from electoral campaigns to issue fights, and then considered strategies for winning. There were few channels of authority or hierarchy, unlike mainstream political parties. People had varying roles and there was apparent leadership, sure. But these weren’t superiors issuing orders. There were no requirements for obedience or conformity. A constant cycle of debate and decision-making played out across the entire membership.
It's worth holding this picture up against another. There is an entire chorus of Very Serious People howling that there is too much democracy in today’s society, and too much participation by regular people in decisions that shape their lives. Headlines like “Too Much Democracy Is Bad For Democracy,” “It's Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” and “More professionalism, less populism,” form a long parade of unconvincing arguments that people are “stupid” and “deluded” and must be guided by responsible men in suits if civilization has any hopes of surviving.
This antidemocratic fear has a rich heritage in American political thought. Genuine public control must be prevented, James Madison wrote, in order “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”
Organizations like New FM are, in their own way, telling naysayers to eat it. And they aren’t alone. Jackson, Mississippi, has established people's assemblies at the municipal level, creating a vehicle for genuine public input and guidance on the majority-Black city’s economic and public safety priorities. And the Southern Movement Assembly, which has “convened thousands of people since 2012” has stitched together a tapestry of “Southern-based leaders and communities.” Their goals are far-reaching and radically democratic: to create “grassroots democracy to exercise political power at the community, city, state, and regional levels,” build a people’s economy through cooperatives, land trusts, and participatory budgeting, and “eliminate state violence” from incarceration and to “military violence that displaces people globally and locally.”
“Only voting will not bring the change that we need,” Anne Pierre, a Palm Beach organizer with New FM tells me. Pierre points to sustained political education, grassroots empowerment, and popular mobilization for deep and lasting changes to the status quo as “the only way we will win.”
“It’s power that convinces us to believe in ourselves.”
The view that ordinary people should control their fates is a basic proposition on the left. It is baked into every corner of its expanding landscape: from the growing ecosystem of progressive media to the movement-builders, like New FM, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Movement for Black Lives, and countless others that bring democratic principles to their fights for things like Medicare for All, free higher education, a Green New Deal, and democratic control of the workplace. They all add up to a simple argument, made by thinkers from Aristotle to Dr. King: that genuine democracy requires a fair distribution of political and economic power, to ensure that no small class of elites can ever purchase the country’s governing institutions.
“You are building a different kind of power,”Andrea Mercado, New FM’s Executive Director told the assembly.
“We're building that power together—independent political power rooted in Black and brown communities... And it's one that flips from asking ‘what can politicians do for us’ to ‘what they can do to get our support.’ It’s one that doesn't convince people to believe in the next savior. It’s power that convinces us to believe in ourselves.”
And that holds true, no matter the outcome of any one election.